What a Good Horse You Are!

The Buddha valued dispassion, yet he also knew the power of love. Reiko Ohnuma on the poignant relationship between Siddhartha and his horse.

Reiko Ohnuma16 January 2023
“Departure of Prince Siddhartha” by Abanindranath Tagore

The life story of the Buddha is lofty, elevated, and inspiring, providing us with a role model we can admire and respect. We marvel at Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation of worldly life, and we are in awe at his attainment of buddhahood.

But does the story also provide us with smaller moments—moments of ordinary human emotion, feelings of intimacy and feelings of loss, or affectionate portraits of creatures who love and adore one another? Does the life story of the Buddha bear any relevance for me—on this very day—as I snuggle on the couch with Danny, the sweetest and goofiest of my feline companions?

The Buddhist emphasis on nonattachment sometimes threatens to render Buddhism as something cold and distant. So, it’s important to look for these smaller moments. What if we were to consider what the Buddhist tradition has to say about the relationship between Prince Siddhartha and his horse?

Horses in ancient India were highly admired animals closely associated with royalty, such that every king or prince worth his salt was in possession of an excellent horse. Prince Siddhartha is no exception. He and the magnificent stallion Kanthaka are born at the very same moment. Kanthaka is large and majestic, as white as jasmine and as beautiful as the full moon, so swift-footed (legend has it) that he’s capable of traversing the entire universe from end to end, yet still make it back before breakfast!

Kanthaka plays a starring role on the night of Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation. To set the scene: Nighttime falls, and the gods have put everyone in the palace into a heavy slumber. Siddhartha wakes up his groomsman Chandaka and tells him to saddle the excellent steed Kanthaka. Just as my cats get nervous whenever I start to pack a suitcase—knowing that my departure on a trip must be imminent—Kanthaka, too, is a clever animal who immediately understands what is happening. “This saddling is very tight,” he thinks, “it is not like the saddling of other days. It must be that my master wishes to go forth on the great renunciation this very day!” Determined to help his master, he carries Siddhartha upon his back and gallops toward the palace gate, which has been locked by the king. But Kanthaka has a plan: “If that gate does not open by itself,” he thinks, “I will leap up with my master sitting on my back and jump over the city ramparts!”

Siddhartha is fully aware of the crucial role his horse has to play in the spiritual journey toward buddhahood, for he says to Kanthaka: “When I have awoken to perfect full awakening, I will be grateful to you. Tonight, dear Kanthaka, carry me across in a single night, and through you, I will become a buddha and carry across the world!”

At daybreak, on the banks of a river, Siddhartha engages in a series of actions to complete his renunciation of worldly life—actions that would later come to be ritually reenacted by candidates for monastic ordination in many Buddhist cultures. He cuts off his hair with a sword, removes his royal garments and jewelry, and puts on a set of rag robes. The final act within this sequence is the dismissal of his groomsman and horse—a crucial moment of severance, a breaking of the last creaturely ties that bind Siddhartha to the world.

It is at this moment of severance that we’re given a poignant glimpse of the intimate affection between Siddhartha and his horse. In their final moment of togetherness, Kanthaka licks Siddhartha’s feet and sheds warm tears. And, in response, Siddhartha strokes the horse and says to him gently: “Don’t cry, Kanthaka. You’ve shown what a good horse you are! Be patient, and this exertion of yours will quickly bear fruit!”

So, Siddhartha departs alone in order to become the Buddha and bring the dharma to the world—hooray!—but what is the fate of his horse? In some sources, Kanthaka cannot bear the separation from his master and immediately dies of a broken heart. In other sources, Kanthaka does not die immediately; instead, he returns to the palace, full of grief and neighing loudly and pitifully. Now that Siddhartha is gone, his horse seems to serve as a stand-in for the absent prince—a convenient target for all the emotions of longing and anger aroused by the prince’s departure. In one source, Siddhartha’s abandoned wife, upon seeing the riderless Kanthaka, faints and falls to the ground. Regaining consciousness, she throws her arms around the horse’s neck and pleads with him: “Alas, Kanthaka, noble horse, my husband’s companion! Where did you take him?” In another source, she bursts into outright anger, calling Kanthaka a “vile horse fond of ignoble deeds.”

The prince’s father has a similar reaction, throwing himself on the ground and looking up at Kanthaka with eyes full of tears. “Oh, Kanthaka,” he cries, “after doing so many favors for me in battle, today you have done me a great disfavor!—for you have carried off into the forest my beloved son. Take me to him today, or go there quickly and bring him back—for I cannot live without him.”

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Having decided to embark on the spiritual path, Siddhartha cuts his hair, removes his royal garments, and puts on rag robes. Then, he dismisses his groomsman and horse, breaking the last ties to his princely life. Illustration from Life of the Buddha, Burmese Edition, via The Jade Turtle Records.

The palace erupts into chaos. Women faint and swoon; a king throws himself to the ground. It’s Kanthaka’s animality, I think, that allows for such raw expressions of intimacy. The animal’s lack of human language is at play. Unable to speak or defend himself, Kanthaka just stands there in silence—like a faithful dog—mutely absorbing the powerful waves of emotion emitted by those who have been abandoned by the prince for the sake of his future buddhahood.

Ultimately, Kanthaka dies of grief, despite the desperate measures people take to save his life. Sweetmeats coated in honey and other foods fit for a king are offered to him, yet Kanthaka does not eat. Constantly thinking of the future Buddha, he weeps. The women of the harem use their regal garments to wipe away Kanthaka’s tears; they stroke his head, his neck, and his back—but all to no avail. Stricken with grief at the loss of his master, Kanthaka starves himself to death.

The life story of the Buddha is a tale that has fascinated me for decades. As an idealistic student in my late teens and early twenties, I admired the story for its powerful illustration of some of the basic truths of Buddhism: Everything is impermanent. There is no self. All attachment inevitably leads to suffering. With time and increasing age, however, I’ve come to see that the story is rich enough to give full recognition to certain other truths, as well: Attachment is powerful. Love is compelling. And loss feels like a personal affront.

I still admire the fully awakened Buddha, sitting in perfect serenity and nonattachment underneath the Bodhi Tree. But I also admire Kanthaka the horse—weeping, grief-stricken, refusing oats and honey, mutely licking his master’s feet with affection.

Reiko Ohnuma

Reiko Ohnuma

Reiko Ohnuma is the author of Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature and Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination.